Pet food industry vet downplays toxic treats role in killing dogs

Veterinarian David A. Dzanis, columnist for the Petfood Industry magazine, poses the question: what if Chinese chicken jerky treats are being “falsely maligned“; that the treats are being unfairly criticized by consumers and certain members of the media?

Dzanis disassociates himself from answering the question with the self-effacing remark, “to be frank, I do not know the answer. I am not privy to any of the details regarding reported incidences of harm to dogs from consumption of chicken jerky manufactured in China or to any test results or other investigative findings; hence I do not have a sufficient basis to make a determination“.

Although the FDA has repeatedly warned consumers of the risks associated with feeding the treats to dogs as early as 2007 and despite over 800 complaints filed with the FDA within the last three months, Dr. Dzaniz is not convinced, “while I may not have reached any conclusions, it is clear that others have. Many purchasers have placed direct blame on adverse effects, including death, of their dogs to feeding Chinese chicken jerky products.”

Dzanis seems puzzled that a petition “demanding a recall is nearing 60,000 signers at the time of this writing. A class-action lawsuit against one company also has been filed.

He implies that the pet treats are not to blame by sharing a conversation he had with, “a couple of small distributors have confided in me that in their due diligence, they cannot find any plausible explanation for the reported adverse effects and believe they are being unfairly accused of incompetence, if not malicious disregard for product safety.”

To be fair, Dzanis’ opinion that association alone does not prove causality, that as there is no scientific evidence to support the complaints, is absolutely correct. However, unlike Dzanis, I prefer the theory of probabilistic causation.

The sworn duty of a doctor of veterinary medicine is the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering.

When you are entrusted with the life of an animal the answer is an obvious one: first do no harm.

Clearly a Problem

The actual number of cases are difficult to determine, some cases are not substantiated, but then others pets may have been affected but owners never complained or even connected their pet’s problem with the treats, Dr. Dan McChesney, of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance at the FDA CVM, notes. In any case, he concedes there’s clearly and apparent problem with chicken jerky treats. The FDA CVM even sent a team to China.

Although scientists still haven’t pinpointed what’s wrong with the treats and the investigations of obvious explanations have come up short, now scientists are now seeking far more unlikely explanations.

Still Seeing Cases

Despite the lack of a recall, many veterinarians are not waiting for toxicology results and are instead warning consumers to stay away from treats made in China.  “I’m disappointed that I’m still seeing these cases,” said Dr. Cathy Langston, a veterinarian who heads the renal medicine service and hemodialysis unit at Animal Medical Center in Manhattan.

Many dogs affected by toxic treats have been diagnosed with acquired Fanconi Syndrome, a kidney disease that’s characterized by a high level of sugar in the urine, Dr. Langston said, noting that the disease was once seen only in Basenjis.

It affects the kidneys and causes them to leak glucose (sugar) and other electrolytes into the urine.  Dogs that have this condition will usually be very thirsty and will urinate excessive amounts.  The most common finding in laboratory tests is that the dog has glucose in the urine, but has a normal blood glucose level.

Some dogs can be born with Fanconi syndrome.  But, the latest concern is that there is something in chicken jerky strips made in China that is actually causing some dogs to develop this problem.  Some dogs can get very sick and even go into renal failure and die.  Other dogs will have an increase in thirst and urination and possibly have accidents in the house and then they may go on to have a full recovery within a few weeks of stopping the chicken jerky treats.

Dr. Karyn Bischoff, a toxicologist at Cornell Veterinary School, said she hasn’t found anything that could cause any of the health problems described in affected dogs. Still, Langston and other experts warn consumers to purchase only treats made in the U.S.

Veterinarians advice: choose a different treat for your pet, until further investigation.  Toxins are difficult to test for, because you have to know what you are looking for in order to find it.

Don’t Buy Them

“I wouldn’t buy them, let along feed them.  If you have some at home, I would take them back, get a refund,” said Dr. James Krewatch, a veterinarian with Bradford Hills Veterinary Hospital in Wexford, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Krewatch said dogs with kidney problems aren’t eating, they have no energy and may even vomit or have diarrhea.

According to the FDA these symptoms can happen within hours or days of eating the treats. But what’s causing it? “Some of these things just are not easy to uncover,” said Dr. Krewatch.

FDA documents suggest it may not be the chicken treats alone. “It may be one food or one ingredient mixing with a totally different ingredient, that normally weren’t together that causes a problem,” said Dr. Krewatch.

Throw it Out

 “If you have a bag in your cupboard?” asked CBS reporter Jodi Brooks, “throw it out,” replied Dr. Shannon Jordan a veterinarian with Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Dr. Jordan warns dog owners that kidney problems are nothing to play around with.

“It’s progressive, typically. So you may start off with simple signs of not eating and vomiting, and it may progress to the point where we can’t… those kidneys can’t repair themselves,” Dr. Jordan said.

They’ll Always Have Kidney Issues

“It’s called the Fanconi syndrome,” Dr. Jones said, a veterinarian at Peachtree Hills Animal hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s genetic, and it’s rare. It’s basically, when the kidneys get very, very leaky and start leaking glucose into the urine. We don’t see that very often, and so we started seeing a rash of these. And we started asking ourselves, why are we seeing this Fanconi syndrome in dogs that shouldn’t have it?”

It’s been a topic of discussion and concern within the Georgia veterinary community. He says the likely culprit is jerky pet treats made in China.

Asked if there was any doubt in his mind that the treats were to blame? “Not in my mind. We’ve had a couple of cases where they came in with the treats.”

“I’ll ask what so many pet owners are asking: Should I be concerned?” Dr. Jones continues, “yes, you need to be concerned if the treats you’re giving are on the list. We’ve been telling owners: if you’re feeding these treats and you see your dog throw up, we want to see them early. An early diagnosis is key,” he said.

Dr. Jones said all of his “jerky sickness” patients are doing OK today. “But they’ll always have kidney issues. We treat them differently.”

He points out some of his colleagues have had less luck and lost patients with a mysterious Fanconi diagnosis.

Dr. Jones’ advice: don’t let your dog finish that bag of treats. Dr. Jones and many other pet owners recommend completely avoiding any treats made in China.

Long Known Fact

“It’s been a long known fact that any product made in China is unsafe for pets,” said Dr. Todd Brown of  Murrells Inlet Veterinary Hospital in South Carolina, “in the past, the FDA has been able to isolate dangerous things in the treats like toxins, lead and metals in the products.”

“There is a lax policy with dog foods and dog products,” said Dr. Brown. “We haven’t seen a case at our clinic in sometime, but we have seen them before.”

Dr. Brown said when an animal comes into the clinic with kidney problems, the doctors immediately ask the owner if the animal has been eating chicken jerky made in China.

“Owners who know their vets and listen to their vets know not to give their animals these treats,” said Dr. Brown. “But so many owners who go into Petsmart or Walmart to buy their pet food don’t know not to buy this.”

Avoid Them No Matter What

“I’ve always told clients to avoid chicken jerky products no matter what the country of origin,” said Dr. Leyenda Harley, a veterinarian specializing in internal medicine at the New Haven Central Hospital for Veterinary Medicine in Hartford, Connecticut

 A blood test may show kidney failure by increased urea nitrogen and creatinine and urine test may indicate Fanconi syndrome the dog, which is when glucose is urinated out rather than absorbed by the kidneys.

“Although most dogs appear to recover, some reports to the FDA have involved dogs that have died,” Dr. Harley said.

Fanconi syndrome results in dogs losing glucose, protein and sodium bicarbonate into urine rather than being absorbed by the kidneys. Dogs get sick more from the loss of sodium bicarbonate into urine than glucose, Dr. Harley said. Sodium bicarbonate is a basic element that helps balance the pH of a dog’s blood, keeping it from getting too acidic.

This Isn’t the First Time

After receiving hundreds of reports of sickened or killed dogs, the FDA has issued a warning about the treats after they were linked to a disease similar to Fanconi syndrome, which can be fatal.

Veterinarian Dr. Dean Aldridge of Flathead Pet Emergency in Montana explained, “That’s a syndrome where the kidneys are unable to retain electrolytes, so you get electrolyte imbalances that can be fatal. For example, the potassium rates could drop to the point where the heart stops.”

Dr. Aldridge says if it’s caught early, this condition can be treated, but warns that’s not always the case.

Dr. Aldridge said, “In most cases with the jerky treats, it’s a correctable syndrome. It’s just that it takes a lot of work and a lot of care. Measuring electrolytes, supplementing electrolytes, until the time that the kidneys do come back around. In some cases it is fatal though, you just can’t get ahead of it.”

Dr. Aldridge said this is not the first time vets have seen this problem: “In 2007, there was something that came across, and then in June, we got another alert from the AVMA, that there was some more of it, and that there may be recall’s on the treats, so we’ve been aware that it’s out there since about June.”

Stop Immediately

“All we can do is say, ‘If you’re using this, use with caution and look for these things and proceed cautiously,'” said veterinarian Dr. Carla Cloud while examining dog experiencing symptoms at Noah’s Animal Hospital in Lawrence, Indianapolis.

Dr. Cloud said if you notice something wrong, take action.

“We always recommend stopping the treat immediately,” Dr. Cloud said. “Get the intestinal tract back on order with some bland food, and then watch for any signs that the problem may be persisting.”

We Never Recommend Those Treats

Veterinarian Dr. Todd Brown of Murrells Inlet Veterinary Hospital in South Carolina has seen many cases of dogs coming in with kidney issues.

“Those had been dogs fed chicken jerky treats previously,” Dr. Brown said. “The connection can’t be proved 100 percent but the thought is that the treats were a cause of the kidney disease.”

“Never do we recommend those treats as part of a good diet, there are plenty of good alternatives out there that are very safe,” Dr. Brown added in a final note of caution.

Don’t Feed it to Your Dog, Period.

Chicken jerky treats from China are making some dogs sick and in some cases dogs have died from kidney failure after eating the treats, according to Dr. Mark Finkler with Roanoke Animal Hospital in Virginia.

“We’re seeing two to three cases every month. One died of kidney failure a few months ago,” said Dr. Finkler.

Three brands in particular are named as dangerous, according to Dr. Finkler.  They are: Waggin Train, Canyon Creek and Milos Kitchen Homestyle Dog Treats. But Dr. Finkler warned that any chicken jerky treats that are made in China could be dangerous.

“The FDA sent an inspector to China about two weeks ago to try and figure out what’s going on,” Dr. Finkler said. “We still don’t know what the ingredient is that’s poisoning them.”

Dr. Finkler’s advice to pet owners: “If it says made in China don’t feed it to your dog, period.”

Senator Brown, Advocate

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio has been urging Congress to take the Chinese dog treat issue seriously, citing ineffective trade laws that have allowed unsafe products to slip into the U.S.  He urged FDA chief Dr. Margaret Hamburg to “be as aggressive as possible to find the source of this contamination.”

Made in America?

Pet owners should know that if the label says “Manufactured for” or “Distributed by” an American company the product could still be made in China. You need to check the entire bag carefully to find the “Made in China” label. Even a “Made in America” label could still mean the product was made in China. Why? Simply put, “Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws do not apply to pet treats.

Dr. Dan McChesney, director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance at the FDA CVM, understands that with China’s checkered history with pet food no doubt fuels skepticism among pet owners. Dr. McChesney notes that dealing with companies outside the U.S. is always a challenge. One easy option and common sense response might be for the FDA CVM to ban the jerky treats in the U.S. However the agency doesn’t have the legal right to do so without a scientific explanation. Besides, most dogs, including Dr. McChesney’s own son-in-law’s dog, “have had no problem with the treats”. Yet.

Of course, chicken jerky treats aren’t a required staple of dog diets. “If you’re concerned, there are lots of other tasty dog treats on the market,” Dr. McChesney says.

First Sign of Trouble

Dog owners who are making the connection between chicken jerky treats made in China and illnesses in their dogs report these symptoms:

– Decreased appetite
– Decreased activity
– Vomiting
– Diarrhea – sometimes with blood
– Increased water consumption
– Increased urination
– Kidney problems, including Fanconi-like syndrome

The FDA suggests keeping the packaging of any suspicious product and report any adverse events with the product to the FDA. For information on how to report a problem please go to the Poisoned Pets Complete Guide to Making a Pet Food Complaint.

SOURCE: Chicken jerky pet treats the new melamine? May, 4, 2012, (

Veterinarian’s Oath

(Approved by the HOD, 1954; Revision approved by the HOD, 1969; Revision approved by the Executive Board 1999, 2010)

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.